Modernism Without Jews?

German-Jewish Subjects and Histories

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Scott Spector
German Jewish Cultures
  • Bloomington, IN: 
    Indiana University Press
    , September
     232 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Scott Spector’s Modernism without Jews? German-Jewish Subjects and Histories challenges the idea that (single) history of German-Jewish modernity can be written. The problem is certainly not one of periodization. Spector identifies Rahel Varnhagen (1771-1831) and Hannah Arendt—the author of a biography of Rahel—as the obvious “bookends” of German-Jewish modernity (xii). Spector’s approach to the necessary plurality of “subjects and histories” in the narrative of German-Jewish modernity shares much in common with Arendt’s approach to Rahel, as Spector points out in his preface. In a felicitous formulation, Spector describes what Arendt seeks to present in her Rahel biography as “the dialectic of unselfconsciousness and necessitated self-consciousness” (xii). Rahel was always aware of the distance between the unguarded intimacies of the heart and the polite but impregnable barriers blocking her full access to German society. Rahel’s subjectivity was split between what Spector calls “mask making and a blindness towards masks” (xii). Spector argues that the pathos of a self divided between the world’s masked reserve and a longing for maskless intimacy is the primary symptom of modernity. Each German-Jewish subjectivity displays this symptom in unique ways. 

Spector’s first chapter explicates the concept of “subjectivity” (in contrast to “identity”) as a way of capturing the modern dialectic of a reflexive self-consciousness that is acutely aware of the gap between the self’s experience of its place in the world and the world’s triangulation of this position. It is certainly not a coincidence that the study of this modern subjectivity reaches delirious heights in the work of Sigmund Freud. As Spector argues in his fifth chapter, “Two Vultures: Freud between ‘Jewish Science’ and Humanism,” that Freud sought to find his place in the world by assuming the mask of scientific objectivity—a kind of studied masklessness. But Freud’s “scientific” distance from his patients contrasted with the goal of the analytic transference, to become the love object in the libidinal economy of the analysand. As Spector notes, Freud declared that the analytic cure is “effected by love” (94). The tension between the professionally “necessitated” mask of dispassionate objectivity and the unmasked vulnerabillity required by therapeutic love exemplifies the kind of tension that informs all German-Jewish subjectivities. In fact, we might say that the histories which Spector narrates are all, in a certain sense, unhappy love stories brought about by the mismatch between the self’s gifts and the world’s willingness to receive them. 

Spector’s second chapter, “Modernism Without Jews,” begins with a discussion of Richard Wagner’s 1850 essay “Judaism in Music” and his later (1877) essay “Modern.” Wagner consistently argues that what is “new” in music is the sound of the Jew, the sound of a music that is (he claims) overly aware of its newness, too much in love with its restless energy and drive, and too little rooted in history. Wagner believed that this “Jewish” modernism was, as Spector puts it, “fleeting and arbitrary, moved by whimsy rather than deep necessity” (19). Spector relates Wagner’s denunciation of the presence of “Judaism” (really, “modernity”) in music to Paul de Man’s infamous contribution to Le Soir in 1941 dealing with the Jewish influence on modern literature. Spector argues that these two essays bear witness to an ongoing and increasingly violent fantasy of escaping from the tensions of modernity by creating a “world without Jews” (21). Modernity, it seemed to Wagner and de Man, was haunted by Jewish subjectivity. Spector points out that the anxieties of Wagner and de Man were matched by German-Jewish anxieties about modernity, and its “legitimacy” as an heir of the Western intellectual and artistic canon, as Spector explains in his third chapter, “The Secularization Question,” dealing with Karl Löwith, Leo Strauss, and Hans Blumenberg. Spector gives full credit to the serious philosophical issues involved in the question of modernity’s legitimacy, but he argues that these cannot be understood in abstraction from the issue of whether Jews can be the legatees of classical (non-Jewish) culture. 

Part 2 of Spector’s book offers “troubled cases” of German-Jewish subjectivity. Here especially, we encounter stories of love. Spector offers the case of Edith Stein, a Jewish philosopher who became a Carmelite nun and was elevated to sainthood in 1998. Stein’s dissertation under Edmund Husserl dealt with the theme of empathy, certainly not unrelated to love, and her memoir, Life in a Jewish Family. As Spector explains, this is the “intimate history” of a Jewish home that is meant to unsettle gentile stereotypes about legalism and strictness. Stein’s is perhaps the test case of German-Jewish subjectivity in which to explore the irreducible complexity of a self-formation built upon the yearning to overcome the mismatch between “intimate, immediate experience and the perceptual experience of the oppositional outsider” (63). After his chapter on Stein, Spector offers us the “troubled cases” of several Jewish subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth. The world that these figures inhabited was a largely village-based world disappearing due to new communication technologies and the emerging tensions of ethnic nationalism. Spector describes Roth’s novel Radetzky March (1932) as “the classic of a central European nostalgia for a central European nostalgia” (111). Love’s most “intimate, immediate” setting—the home—is, for the uprooted Hapsburg subject, always already lost. The literature of the unsettled spirits of central European Jews perhaps reaches its apogee in the writing of the Prague German-Jewish writer Franz Kafka, to whom Spector devotes his final three chapters (with attention as well to Max Brod’s yearning for a homeland and the disputed “home” of the Kafka Nachlaß). In the final chapter, “The Law of the Letter,” we encounter the theme of unhappy love in its most explicit form, with Spector’s insightful reading of Kafka’s letters to Milena Jesenská, letters in which Kafka unmasks himself as the victim of his own tortured subjectivity. Kafka’s love, like his life, exists only in and through the medium of letters. Like his treatment of the other German-Jewish subjectivities studied in this pathbreaking book, Spector’s close readings of the Milena letters allow us to witness the torments of a self, wracked but also inspired, by the unappeasable demands of an uprooted self in search of a permanent address in the world. Spector’s book is required reading for all students of modernism and the German-Jewish contribution to this fraught moment in European history.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bruce Rosenstock is Professor in the Department of Religion at the University Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Date of Review: 
March 20, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Scott Spector is professor of history and Germanic languages and literature at the University of Michigan. He is author of Prague Territories: National Conflict and Cultural Innovation in Franz Kafka's Fin de Siècle.


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